Category: Philosophy


Imposing Values

The “Christian Right” is often accused of wanting to push their moral view on society. While there are some Christians who feel they should force Christian laws on those who don’t want them (I’m not one of them), I’m wondering if it has occurred to anyone that progressives are doing exactly the same thing. They have their own ideas and since the Enlightenment have been promoting them with an evangelistic passion.

“We’re not pushing our values on anyone” they may protest. “People just need to be free to choose”. But their supposedly value-neutral stance is a truth claim no more or less than any other, and the moral relativism it entails carries social consequences as real as those that flow from any other worldview. To insist are no absolutes is (ironically enough) itself an absolute statement, a truth claim that would please the most rigid fundamentalist.

Both sides are convinced they are right, and opponents to Christian belief are often as holier-than-thou as those they accuse; perhaps more so because at least informed Christian belief insists that believers are saved not by how good they are but by God’s naked grace. In fact, Christianity raises this issue to the point of doctrine, an understanding prerequisite to any meaningful conversion. I see no such corrective in liberal thought.

There is no truly neutral ground. No matter how you look at it, someone is trying to impose their values on someone else, and this affects everything from families to the law of the land. To accuse only Christians of this misses the true state of things.

The Great Contradiction

Present conventional wisdom holds to values of tolerance; all cultures are held to be equal. Live and let live.

But what about when one culture would deliberately prevent members of their society from participating in that society as equals?

If we don’t challenge such views, we are not standing up for the marginalized within those societies. Is this just? Yet we are told we must not criticize such cultures.

My point here is not to bash another culture but to point out a double standard inherent in “progressive” thought: deeming all cultures equal, they prohibit criticism of societies that enslave and marginalize their own members. In doing so the progressives are not demonstrating tolerance: they are actually accomplices to injustice.

What’s more, they are quite intolerant towards those who would shine a light on these issues, branding them bigots and cultural imperialists. But can any of them answer the contradiction instead of just name calling? I don’t think they can.

You can’t sit on the fence. At the end of the day, there has to be a set of values that are absolute and binding on humanity if ideas of justice are to have any meaning.

Fundamentalism

Religious fundamentalism is viewed by most modern thinkers as the starting point of many great evils; that if we did away with it, the world would be a better place.

But I think that depends on what your fundamental is.

A few years ago a gunman went to an Amish school and shot ten young girls, of whom a number died at the scene, before taking his own life.

The families of the victim forgave the gunman and took up a collection for his widow.

To say this goes against the grain is an understatement. And if the Amish aren’t fundamentalists then I don’t know who are.

The difference is that their fundamental is a Man dying for His enemies. The cultural and political baggage that has sometimes attached itself to Christianity (and there is plenty) aside, this is what lies at the very heart of the Christian faith. Christians are told to forgive the same way that Jesus did, and for his sake. If they don’t, they are departing from its teachings.

What’s your fundamental?

A thing I’ve noticed about many of the online debates lately is that people who make truth claims are often derided on the basis of their supposed affiliation with a school of thought: “you’re saying that because you’re a liberal, or a conservative or a vegan or lived at this particular point in history” …or whatever.

This approach has been called historicism, which posits that any truth claim must be judged in the context (for instance, the culture or a particular time in history) it was made in. 

Is this wise? The actual truth of the statement is not discussed; its validity is judged on the basis of what group or time the speaker belongs to, and the veracity of a particular claim is accepted or dismissed without rigorous examination.

Another less than beneficial result is that it tends to stereotype people in the discussions and promotes prejudging of motive. If what I say brands me a conservative then there is a tendency to assume all the other supposed evils of that view are are part of me as well. This discourages productive debate, steering the discussion away from issues and tending towards personal attacks. It promotes the sort of fractured discourse we see in modern politics.

This came up in a discussion I was having the other day. We were discussing the origin of moral truth and a pretty forthright statement made in a video I had reposted. The speaker’s statements were impugned on the basis that “he assumed the supremacy of the Judeo-Christian worldview” and were dismissed (if I understood my friend correctly) accordingly. The speaker was derided as narrow, bigoted, and hopelessly behind the times.

Of course the speaker assumed that supremacy. So do I: I could hardly call myself a Christian if I didn’t believe it was actually true. But Historicism assumes all truth claims are equal (by all being merely products of a particular view), a logical impossibility if there is such a thing as actual truth. It fits hand in glove with postmodern thought, and I think it’s quite useless if someone is trying to judge between truth claims.

And we must judge, for even the historicist is making a truth claim. A person with an intellectually rigorous outlook can’t sit on the fence; that many do reflects an uncritical acceptance of a prevailing (and I would suggest dishonest) intellectual climate.

The Bible in a Year

A few years ago, I decided to read the entire Bible in one year. I was surprised at some of the insights I was able to get out of it.

The advantage was that you get what the Bible is saying in context: not individual texts lifted out like some sort of blessing box verse, but the whole sweep of the Bible’s narrative while it’s fresh in your mind. You get much more of a feel for what it is telling us. It was, and continues to be, a life changing experience.

I’ve slowed down a little, but continue to read it daily: It has been so profitable and encouraging I just can’t stop.

What stuck out after taking big gulps of the Bible? One thing that was striking was my view of God in the Old Testament:

– God is fair, and God is Love. If He’s mad, it’s because people are unfair or unloving.

– That people matter. They really do.

– That the moral law is not something we made up, but is as real and objective as mathematics. That it has a Source. Good really is good, and evil is, well, evil.

– That God is a covenant making God. He makes promises to His people, and that He is faithful.

– That He always has shown grace, even in the Old Testament.

I was also able to see how well the Old Testament meshes in with the New. How many of the promises made to Israel find their consummation in Christ, and how the promises made to the nation of Israel now open up to include anyone – Jew and Gentile – who will trust in Israel’s Redeemer.

– The New Testament, besides the gospel narratives (the actual teachings, work, and resurrection of Christ) shows us, especially in St Paul’s writings, the logic of redemption, and how it all fits together.

– That God is relational: the individual’s decision to trust God is crucial.

– That even Christians are still human and can get it wrong. Much of the New Testament contains letters written to correct imbalances that were showing up in the young churches.

– That there is an end to History. That death really has been defeated, and that we were made for happy endings because there is one.

– That despair is not an option. That there really is hope and meaning for life.

Just a few thoughts. If you haven’t Read the whole Bible, I’d encourage you to do it. Read the New Testament first, and Psalms and Proverbs. Don’t let some parts (the geneologies in Chronicles and some of the more nit picky rules in Exodus and Leviticus come to mind) bog you down. Set aside a little time, every day, and read. It takes a while to develop the habit, but it’s really worth the trip.

Islamophobia

Much has been said lately about attempts to legislate against hate speech.

ISIS and its odious compatriots are pushing a particularly narrow and violet version of fundamentalist Islam. Whether by accident or design, their atrocities tend to associate decent, law abiding Muslims in the west with the horrors we hear of perpetrated in the name of Allah.

The politically correct rush in to tell these people that we don’t blame them, and in that I feel they show a real generosity in spirit. But they overshoot, clamping down on any legitimate criticism of Islam.

Therein lies the real danger: this attempt to silence critics pushes people into corners. It attacks the very heart of what we are, creating a “them vs us” mentality as people with legitimate fears have their voice removed.

There’s a real irony here. Just as some tend to label all Muslims negatively due to the actions of a few, so do others lump the critics of Islam into a single, monolithic group of haters. This is neither fair nor wise.

Hate speech laws don’t change hearts. They just push the discord deeper down, where it can fester. And even those who have a reasonable objection are marginalized as their voice is being legislated away (as an aside, I think this accounts for much of Donald Trump’s recent election as President. A creeping sense of political correctness has inclined many to push back the polls).

This is not what liberal democracy is about. Freedom of speech goes hand in hand with freedom of religion and conscience. Everything must be open to critique, and those examined have the right to response. It is neither unreasonable nor Islamophobic to ask Muslims who have come to live among us to give assurances that they now share our values.

Aristotle told us a city is a unity of unlikes. True diversity must allow for differences of opinion: and that is what I feel is threatened by hate speech laws. They negatively affect other, more fundamental constitutional rights. Yes, some feelings may get hurt; freedom is messy. That’s the price we pay for living in the west.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus is the way to God, but freedom to choose or reject Christ is implicit in that belief. As a citizen, I must support Muslims’ right to practice their faith peacefully, even if I disagree with its view of God. We’re supposed to be civilized about our differences, and ours is an age where common courtesy is in short supply. People need to exercise good manners and do careful investigation before criticizing.

The freedom to critically examine creeds and lifestyles must be maintained, as does the right to respond in civilized discourse. Labelling a critic an Islamophobe, homophobe, Christianophobe or any other label is just name calling and does far more harm than good. It splinters the freedoms we cherish, and in the end nobody wins.

Review: The Abolition of Man

I read The Abolition of Man for the first time about 30 years ago and consider it amongst the most important books I have ever read. It’s a tough little book, but worth the time.

It was a tremendous relief for me as a young Christian to discover that Christianity not only made sense, but could be approached critically throughout. Lewis’ particular gift was to expose the facile nature of much of what passes for modern intellectualism, and demonstrated for me that informed Christian belief is intellectually rigorous. If we take into account all we experience in life, it gives a sounder explanation of our world than anything else on the market.

The Abolition of Man begins by examining a book on English grammar in which Lewis notes a disturbing trend; not in how grammar is taught, but in the philosophy of its authors.

Morality is based on the idea that creation is inherently good; that it possesses real value. It is only by dismissing half of what we experience as mere sentiment that modern thinkers can pass a materialistic reductionism off as the whole truth. This is the view Lewis warns us against in Lecture One; the authors of the Green Book would inculcate not better grammar in young minds, but a skeptical outlook that brushes off value statements as emotional, subjective fluff. In debunking experiences that better men considered profitable, humane and generous, they undercut even concepts of justice and truth, cutting out the heart of all it means to be human. They would make us “men without chests”.

And where does that lead? In Lecture Three the author takes this worldview to its logical conclusion, examining its inconsistencies and the danger it poses.

Lewis sensibly points out that we cannot go on seeing through everything; there has to be some sort of objective truth at the bottom of things for anything to make sense. Yet the true skeptic must (if he is to be consistent) discredit all value statements; they are to be viewed only as natural phenomena to be managed with no overarching morality – the “Tao”, as Lewis calls it – to inform them. Such a world would be incapable of any sensible or actually moral action. The debunker has become the blindest of all, for he sees through everything – and gazes into a void.

And should a group of skeptical Conditioners arise with the power to determine the course of subsequent generations, what motives could they have? Having denied value – and hence moral thought – as objective, all that is left is raw utilitarianism and their own fallible desires: both dangerous grounds for any program of conditioning. We may (for instance) consider how the discredited science of eugenics worked in the value-free world of the Third Reich. Having decided that certain races and types of people were a drag on humanity, Hitler’s government set about – albeit in very modern, scientific ways – to eliminate them. By deeming justice a mere sentiment, they became in practical fact the embodiment of evil.

It is not Lewis’ purpose to defend Christian belief in particular with this book, but to rather demonstrate the nature of moral thought, its reality in our lives, and the terrible danger of trying to get around it. Morality is necessarily transcendent, and Lewis cites a number of sources to demonstrate that most religions and cultures share, and always have had this understanding. Morality must, if it is objective fact, be something that originates outside ourselves if it is to make any genuine claims on our lives; and in this we may allow that no religion is entirely wrong – though some are closer to the truth than others.

But it is the modern materialist who strays the furthest, with his truncated, wilfully ignorant worldview denying at least half of the reality he encounters. This is the position Lewis shows untenable: by trying to interpret reality on his own terms, the skeptic winds up with exactly nothing – at least nothing of value. In their quest to be their own masters, they would emasculate humanity. To borrow from the book’s title, they seek nothing less than the abolition of man.

The Opposite of Religion

“For the LORD takes pleasure in His people; He will beautify the humble with salvation.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭149:4‬ ‭NKJV‬‬

What is humility? It’s not, the saying goes, so much as thinking less of yourself but of thinking of yourself less. The humble look outside themselves, past their own abilities and agendas in concern for others and to seek grace to live lives that please God.

Religion seeks God on its own terms; I put God in my debt by my good works. Then I get bragging rights and can feel superior to others. But Christianity says there’s nothing I can bring to the negotiating table: I am accepted only by God’s raw grace.

The defining mark of God’s people is a conscious dependence on their Saviour. It’s not so much a prerequisite as it is a structural necessity: we have to be humble to look for help beyond ourselves.

Tolerance, Love and Politics

C. Everett Koop was Surgeon General during the Reagan administration. A social conservative and evangelical Christian, he took exception to the gay lifestyle at a time when the AIDS epidemic was ravaging the gay community in the 1980s.

But he fought to change society’s views of the disease and for federal support to find treatment options; gay or not, as Americans they formed part of his constituency and he fought for their good while educating Americans about the disease and its prevention. He remained unapologetic about his personal views, but he gained the respect of AIDS activists around the world.

His actions were consistent with his Christian faith.

Real tolerance is based on love. The civil person can disagree and should be able to say so (Koop certainly did), but must still strive for the good of the person who holds the opposing view, as Koop also did.

But how to define good? To promote acceptance of something you disagree with? That could go against conscience and would amount to tacit agreement with what one consider the other’s poor choice. On my own idea of good? The help will probably be rejected.

I conclude that the good to be shown happens on common ground. Both side agreed on the danger of the disease, and Koop saw that good as managing the AIDS epidemic even as he maintained his view that the best prevention was to be married and straight. In the same way, I won’t give an alcoholic another drink because he asks for it; but perhaps I can feed him or give him a blanket.

Tolerance do not have to mean an acceptance of all lifestyle options. It does mean discussions of differences should be civil (hence the term “civilization”) but in a liberal democracy all differences must be allowed and discussed. In fact, the right to have the discussion must be vigorously defended. The vitriol displayed in debates about alternate lifestyles is breathtaking; dissenting voices are automatically prejudged haters and bigots. There seems to be little sense of irony amongst some progressives, and their attempt to silence dissenters strikes at the heart of liberal democracy.

My love for my son is unconditional; but it does not mean I would support his becoming a crack addict. I’d be very frustrated to have someone tell me I was wrong to disagree with his choice; in fact, to just condone the thing that’s killing him would be a sign of indifference, of non-love.

Truth and Mercy

If we are to come after God, it’s important that we know Who or What we seek.

Doctrine is about understanding certain facts about God, ourselves, and our relationship to Him. Until we understand our true situation we can’t appreciate what He has actually done for us, why He’s done it, and what our response should be.

A seeker of truth must be quite ruthless with him or herself, and be constantly aware of their own tendency to project their personal preferences into their belief systems. For to believe a doctrine that is merely agreeable to is to make God in our own image. It’s do-it-yourself religion.

A starting point would be to determine the reliability of the Bible and its authority. Is is really God’s word, or just the creation of a particular culture? What does it tell us about people and God? How does it relate to the world we see?

The Bible tells us a number of uncomfortable truths about ourselves, things not agreeable to human nature.

It tells us of a good God, the source of all sensible statements about the worth of all people and the goodness of creation.

It tells us of how we should treat others. So far, so good.

But then it tells us we break that moral law (as does experience), and are guilty before Him; and that the abuse of our free will has separated us from Him.

It tells us of what He did to make a way back, and how we can freely choose to return on His terms: by changing direction and choosing to trust in Christ’s atoning work and resurrection instead of relying on our own efforts.

This understanding is key. We need to understand we can’t save ourselves, or even change our own hearts. We need to distrust our own motives, and to understand our constant need of His grace.

But we can then look past our brokenness… to HIM. The redeemed soul understands its situation, but also knows that He’s saved us, not because we deserved it, but simply because He is love. And that because of that we are truly safe, and truly saved.

It tells us that the very power of death is broken, and that we have an eternal hope.

We need to hold these as truths in our hearts before we can come to God for mercy and supply. To do otherwise is to not know what to ask for and to tell Him there are parts of our lives He is not allowed in to.

The gospel is radical. God wants our whole heart, and will use life’s trials to keep us coming to Him for help. The changing our hearts in practical fact is God’s work, and He will make us into true sons and daughters if we will let Him.